Published May 2nd, 2017 @ 11:45 pm EDT by Prince Pocket

REVIEW: The Man From Beyond: Houdini Seance Escape Room by Strange Bird Immersive (Houston, TX)

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5/5 Claws

Challenge: 8.5
Awe: 10
Care: 9.5
Theme: 10
Team: 9.5
Signature Color: Purple

 Michael: 

“The Man from Beyond— when I read what it was (a fusion of theater and an escape room) I sighed. Then I sighed again, because I wasn’t sure the neighbors heard how sad, pitying, and weary I was of anything claiming to combine theater with anything. I love New York’s Sleep No More, which convincingly renders Macbeth into a walk-through experience of pure mood. I’ve seen many SNM imitators, and I dislike all of them (especially Then She Fell, my least favorite work of art). But now I’ve played The Man from Beyond, a 90-minute escape experience, humanely priced but worthy of royalty and I’ve never felt more ridiculous for having only medium-sized expectations. It’s a marvel.

In the parlor of a Houdini museum, a medium invites you to a seance. Even before you enter the seance room, you’ll find my very favorite “release waiver” experience anywhere. Then the seance room outshines your favorite Disney attraction or Broadway set in detail and immersive elegance. You’ll totally forgive what looks like a predictable story. You’ll be a good sport. And then, in a moment I won’t spoil, you’ll realize that the game designers are every bit as smart as the players, the performances are even better than they looked, and the experience isn’t what you were expecting. Personally, I was even, at times, frightened (certainly unsettled), but the experience contains no “jump scares.” You will be challenged, you will be surprised, and it will be more than worth the price of admission and the 90 minutes’ running time.

Though this is also a play, the designers do respect escape rooms for what they are. You’re in the room, you have an hour to escape.The puzzles will reward you perhaps more than any you’ve ever seen. The construction of this set took over a year. I love everything about the puzzles in this room. Since I’m an archaeologist, what moved me most was that the puzzles were period appropriate, and accurate to Houdini’s own time. When you see a puzzle, you’ll want to solve it just to see how the technology of it works. They’re beautifully made.The experience is blessedly free of “find four digits, then open a padlock.” Narratively, there’s a reason for the encryption of everything, and it’s often story, not arbitrary number-hunting, that will lead you to the solutions. It has the best hint delivery system I’ve ever seen, and I wish I’d asked for more hints just because it was so much fun to receive them.

Most escape room players have been burned too many times by a strong narrative; once upon a time, we enthusiasts read every letter, every IKEA serial number, and every clue as if the larger story mattered—only to find that we had over-complicated things, that the story had been a red herring, and that the solution had really four numbers and a padlock. The Man from Beyond makes the boundary between game and story tremble. Bring your curiosity, and trust the designers to reward you for reading and examining and enjoying all the game pieces, whether they’re recordings, letters, or anything else. The more curious you are about your surroundings, the better. And don’t get drunk and go. Don’t do that to yourself–this is a detailed experience. You’ll want to take all of it in.

The performance element is terrific. I was more conversational with the cast during the game than I would normally be, just to see if their interactions with us were puzzles in themselves. There seem to be decision-trees in some of the dialogues, and the cast can roll with any reasonable and appropriate comment a player might make. No matter what though, the scenes always return to a scripted performance. That’s fair—it was advertised as a fusion of escape room and theater. If I were a drama critic, I might venture some comment about whether some monologs here and there could be tighter, or whether some moments should be edited until they were as taut as a good cut-scene. But unlike a cut-scene, dramatic moments often seemed like interactive moments even when they weren’t. In future projects, the team could deepen this effect. They might consider adding even deeper interactivity to the performance elements, even if it’s only a simple tree-structure leading to a varied script. That said, if Man from Beyond were a play, it would be a good one.

My larger concern involves the proprietors’ desire that just about every player ought to win. They’ve only had one group fail to escape, and they like it that way. Their hearts are in the right place, and maybe they should stick to their guns. But I do believe that almost everywhere and in just about every period of history, a game is not a real game unless there’s a way to lose—no matter what people say, victory only tastes as sweet as it seemed unlikely. For some, a 99% win statistic may weaken, or even invalidate, the most important of Strange Bird’s claims: that this is a game. I do believe there ought to be a higher chance of failure, even if “failing” resulted in a unique scene or revelation unavailable to winners. And if they want to go easy on certain groups (perhaps those involving children) they should seriously consider a tiered difficulty system. Are some of the players very young? Great, offer their parents the chance to play a version that’s practically un-losable, but for goodness sake, don’t tell the kids afterward! And give the grown-ups a chance to play on “easy.”

These are pretty small gripes, though. I could add a third: that it’s a little sentimental. I might wish the room a little dimmer. But with all the beautifully integrated historical material, all the vintage photographs and re-created paraphernalia, it’s astounding that it never feels pedantic. I learned a lot about Houdini, and I didn’t even notice that I was learning. This escape room really does work as a museum of Houdiniana. All its lessons are optional. But students of exhibition design should give it a try.

Should you feel guilty for the rest of your life if you’re in Houston and you don’t try and play this game? Yes, yes you should. Is it worth flying to Houston just to check it out?

Yes. Yes, it is.”

 Paul:  

The Man from Beyond is the single most memorable escape room I have ever seen.  We’ve seen several rooms try to introduce a live actor as part of the escape experience, but none has yet to do so as elegantly, thoughtfully and respectfully as Strange Bird Immersive.

The care taken to immerse guests into the story began before we even arrived; there were no gaudy neon signs advertising an escape room or The Man from Beyond [that I noticed], but rather signs for Strange Bird and Madam Daphne’s parlor.  Welcoming us to her home, Daphne was a charming and delightful hostess offering prohibition-era libations and individual tarot readings while our party gathered.

The cast expertly played into my expectation/fear that the dramatic elements were going to detract from the experience; during the seance, when the ‘knocks from the great beyond’ came with a side order squeaky hinges and foot-pedal thuds I was proud of what a good sport I was being.  It was only after the performance, when our status as reviewers prompted the proprietors to share some of the room’s technological secrets with us, did we learn that all of those things I had dismissed as threadbare seams were as deliberately designed as the puzzles (and apparently just as effective.)  Truth be told, there really is a great deal of sophisticated technology at work in this room, but it is all so wonderfully well-hidden that the effect feels (appropriately) like magic.

The challenges were an artfully juggled combination of deduction, observation, and narrative, all extensively researched and thematically appropriate.  But the highest compliment I can give to the amount of care that went into this room is that the total time for the experience includes the standard 60 minutes for an escape room and an additional 30 for performance; the acting and theatrical elements literally only add to the game instead of subtracting from it.  The blending of the disciplines respects us both as an audience and as game-players.

Normally I’m a real stickler for things like victory photos with props provided to celebrate (or console) and while I do miss not having one for this magnificent room, stopping to have taken one would have shattered the perfectly immersive evening.  Besides, the keepsake tarot card we earned has found a special place at my Partly Wicked desk.

From beginning to end, The Man from Beyond is a luxury escape performance fit for royalty, earning it the signature color of Purple.  See & play it now before word of this hidden gem of Houston spreads and they become booked solid for months in advance. ”

I, for one, plan on not only visiting Madame Daphne’s salon again the next time I’m in town but also anxiously await Strange Bird’s next production.

Until then,
In Fantasia Veritas


Note: This performance of The Man from Beyond had been scheduled especially for Partly Wicked; while this does not impact our review the special accommodation of our schedule is appreciated.

The Silos at Sawyer Yards
1502 Sawyer Street, Suite #213
Houston, TX 77007

(832) 413-2853

www.StrangeBirdImmersive.com

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